The major factor that kept North Carolina from quickly following the other Southern states in secession was the large amount of Unionists in the state. Unionists fought secession and favored the preservation of the Union. Similar to the Revolutionary War and the loyalist, most Unionist lived in the mountains or along the eastern coast; these areas did not have the same cotton production as the piedmont, so there were fewer slaves and large planters. Another key area that Unionists gained support was from the Whig Party which had several members throughout the Old South. Nationally, the Whig party was losing support leading to the creation of the Republican Party in the North, but many North Carolinians still supported the Whigs. Throughout the 1850’s and 1860’s, the Whig Party increasingly became a party of the Unionists.
As time went on, the Democratic Party and the Unionist became more divided over the issue of slavery. Many Democrats favored secession and the expansion of slavery. The divisions increased up until the North Carolina Gubernatorial election of 1860. Much of the gubernatorial election was focused around the Presidential election. The main platforms were made up of what each candidate would do if Republican Abraham Lincoln was able to win the Presidency. Current Governor John Ellis said that if Lincoln won the Presidential election that North Carolina should secede from the Union. His opponent and Unionist, W.W. Holden opposed the thought of secession and stressed the preservation of the Union. Democrat John Ellis was able to secure the gubernatorial election, but even in victory he faced a strong fight over secession with Holden and other Unionists.
Even though W.W. Holden did not win the North Carolina Gubernatorial election of 1860, he proved very important for the Unionists’ cause and became the leader of the Unionists in North Carolina. Holden worked to earn his wealth and was not a member of the aristocracy. He worked his way through the newspaper business until he became editor of the Standard in 1843. Ironically, the Standard was seen as the newspaper of the Democratic Party, but Holden himself identified more with the Whig Party though he was not set in just one political party. Holden tried to become the voice of the “Common Man”, so he was able to identify with the yeoman farmers that heavily populated North Carolina. This appeal to the “Common Man” gained him much influence throughout the state, so he was able to spread his Unionist ideas.
Holden began to use the Standard to discuss national problems in order to educated North Carolinians. He made it a point to teach people in North Carolina the affects that secession would have on the state. Holden was not opposed to the “threat” of secession by the Southern states. He felt that a threat of secession would bring the South together over the issue of slavery and force the North to respect their stand. Holden wanted it to stay just that, a “threat.” Holden knew secession would have terrible consequences on the state. One major consequence secession would have would be the loss of the stability that the federal government was able to provide in economics, especially the protection of yeoman farmers. A new government, especially one that lacked manufacturing, would have tremendous economic setbacks and would hurt North Carolina that had just came out of the “RIP Van Winkle” state. Another problem with secession is that it would end in a bloody war with the Union. Many secessionists tried to remain optimistic that the federal government would leave the Confederate states alone and remain in rebellion. Holden could not understand that reasoning and he knew the federal government would use the military to bring the Southern states back into the Union. Once back in the Union, the Southern states would take an economic hit and not trusted by the federal government. With this loss of power, slavery would surely be abolished, the Southern economy would be stalled, and many lives would be lost. Holden felt strongly that even if Lincoln was elected, the Union could be preserved through compromise and it would be in North Carolina’s, as well as the rest of the South, best interest to remain in the Union.
Everyone awaited the Presidential election of 1860 which was host to four different candidates: Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge, North Democrat Stephen Douglas, Republican Abraham Lincoln, and Constitutional Unionist John Bell. Lincoln did not appear on the ballet in much of the South, including North Carolina. Southern Democrats obviously favored Breckinridge and the Unionist support John Bell. A flier in the Raleigh Register read that “friends of Bell and the Union” should come out to a committee to support Bell and his campaign. The Unionist believed Bell’s candidacy would be able to throw the election so that Congress would have to choose a candidate where they felt Bell would be the perfect compromise between the North and the South. This was an attempt to postpone secession talk once again. Even though there was a strong Unionist presence in North Carolina, Breckinridge won the state and Lincoln won the majority of the country and the Presidency. With Lincoln’s election, secession talk intensified.
Lincoln’s election and the fear of Deep South secession troubled the Unionists. Many felt that “North Carolinians like a parcel of sheep would blindly follow their southern neighbors out of the Union.” Holden printed a message for North Carolinians in the Standard, “It is neither the duty nor the destiny of North Carolina to follow blindly South Carolina and the ‘Cotton States.’ The idea that North Carolina must go out of the Union because South Carolina is going out, ignores State will, State sovereignty, and State independence. It is not the ‘Carolinas,’ but it is South Carolina and North Carolina.” This statement made by Holden appeals to the matters that would be important to the non-slave owners in North Carolina. The Standard was instrumental tool in order to keep up support for the Unionist party and ultimately battle to keep North Carolina from seceding from the Union.
In order to control the outrage in North Carolina due to Lincoln’s Presidential election, Holden and other Unionists urged North Carolina to take a “wait and watch” policy. This policy would give Lincoln a “fair shot” at the Presidency before any rash decisions were made on whether or not to leave the Union. Congressman Zebulon B. Vance supported “wait and watch” policy. Congressman Vance stated, “Fear of Lincoln when he comes into office is perfect humbuggery. The only earthly chance to save the Union is to gain time and permit this great rashness that burns the public mind to burn out.” Vance stressed that “peaceful secession was impossibility.” The Wilmington Herald warned, “The State that secedes must pass through a baptism of blood, in which the garments of her surrounding sisters will be freely dipped.” The Unionists urged North Carolinians to give Lincoln a chance at the Presidency. Lincoln showed he was willing to work with the Border States and their representatives. This proved that Lincoln was not unwilling to compromise with the Southern states and this act gave Unionists in North Carolina great hope that they could remain in the Union. Another key to act by Lincoln was his inaugural address. His message to the South was not a war message despite his refusal to acknowledge the secession of the Deep South states. This act brought peaceful thinking to many North Carolinians. Then North Carolina Congressman, John A. Gilmer was offered a position in Lincoln’s cabinet. North Carolina representatives urged Gilmer to accept the position, but he refused. Even though Gilmer did not take the position, this act shows Lincoln wanted North Carolina to remain in the Union. With Lincoln’s willingness to compromise and his non-threatening statements towards the South, Lincoln had proved not to be the monster he was assumed to be by many people in the South. Early on, the “watch and wait” policy proved affective.
Though Unionists had been impressed with Lincoln, Governor Ellis urged North Carolina’s General Assembly to host a convention to review their situation with the Union. The convention was an attempt by pro-secessionist Governor Ellis to urge North Carolina to secede and follow the other Southern states. In addition to the convention, Ellis wanted to call for “the formation of a state army of 10,000 volunteers, the reorganization and strengthening of the North Carolina militia, and the purchase of weapons for these forces.” Unionists feared that this convention in the General Assembly led by Governor Ellis would “rush North Carolina out of Union without giving the people an opportunity to determine their fate.” It seemed that the fate of North Carolina rested in the outcome of the General Assembly convention.
With great fear of secession if the convention was held, Unionist avoided the meeting several times ultimately drawing out the process. The New York Times article, “The Secession Excitement: North Carolina Legislature,” shows that in late December of 1860 Governor Ellis had not secured the necessary votes in order to call the convention in the General Assembly. The 2/3 vote required failed to hold the convention and his “bill to arm” North Carolina had failed for the third time. This was a victory for the Unionists as they had postponed a decision of the fate of the state once again. Unionists were buying time, just as Congressman Vance had urged in order to preserve the Union.
With the secession of Virginia, North Carolina was increasingly feeling pressure to follow in secession. On January 29, 1861 the convention bill passed and Unionist were required to assemble for the meeting; the convention was scheduled for February 28th. Unionists argued that Lincoln was not a threat to North Carolina and that slavery could only be protected in the Union. With the loss of the protection of the Constitution, slavery could not survive. Former congressman Henry W. Miller stressed that a war would bring an end to slavery regardless of victor. The Unionists’ argument could only remain plausible if Lincoln did not use force on the Southern states to reunite the Union. Unionists knew that in every other Southern state secession followed the state legislature convention. The Standard printed the results showing the eighty three delegates voted in favor of the Union and only thirty seven delegates voted for secession. The convention proved a decisive victory for the Unionists and it quieted talk of secession. In February 1861, North Carolina was in the Union and they planned to remain in the Union.
 Harris, Coming of the Civil War, 31.
 Harris, Coming of the Civil War, 32.
 Edgar E. Folk & Bynum Shaw, W.W. Holden: A Political Biography (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1982), 2, 19, 51.
 Folk & Shaw, W.W. Holden, 60, 66-68.
 Harris, Coming of the Civil War, 32 – 33; George C. Rable, The Confederate Republic (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 37.
 Harris, Coming of the Civil War, 34.
 Harris, Coming of the Civil War, 35
 Folk & Shaw, W.W. Holden, 129 – 130.
 Folk & Shaw, W.W. Holden, 126.
 Harris, Coming of the Civil War, 35.
 Harris, Coming of the Civil War, 48 – 49.
 Harris, Coming of the Civil War, 37.
 "The Secession Excitement; North Carolina Legislature," New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/1860/12/21/news/the-secession-excitement-north-carolina-legislature.html?scp=6&sq=north%20carolina%20secession&st=cse. (accessed January 17, 2012).
 Harris, Coming of the Civil War, 38-45.
 Folk & Shaw, W.W. Holden, 134.